The first paddle of the year: Our backcountry trip to The Massasauga

The May long weekend made us sweat. Not literally – the weather was a bit on a cool side, actually, with generous helpings of rain. But the run-up to the weekend was marked with uncertainty and seemingly endless waiting as spring refused to show up and the late ice out kept pushing back the park opening date. Till about a couple of weeks before the trip it wasn’t clear whether we’d need to turn our canoe into an icebreaker. In the end, spring decided to grace us with her presence, albeit reluctantly, melting the remainder of ice, along with our worries, and the trip was a go.

canoeing at the Massasauga provincial park

Our first canoe trip of the year was marked with uncertainty, rain and moments of pure magic

We had a site booked at The Massasauga, a provincial park along the coast of Georgian Bay about two and a half hours away from Toronto. The last and only time we visited the park was in the pre-blog times so it seemed like we were due for a return visit.

campfire on site 24 at The Massasauga

The Massasauga’s logo features its namesake – Ontario’s only venomous snake

The Massasauga, named after Ontario’s only venomous snake, is a backcountry camping park only, with some sites located directly on the Bay and others on inner lakes. By the time I got to booking our trip, most of the sites were already taken so we ended up with #204 on the bay side. According to the map, it would take us about six hours to paddle there. Which would be fine on a nice sunny weekend. But the forecast called for a lot of rain and even a thunderstorm. Getting soaked on a long paddle aside, lightning and water don’t mix that well which meant six hours could be just a starting point.

paddling on Spider lake at The Massasauga

The Massasauga is a beautiful backcountry park along the Georgian Bay coast

Bad weather, however, had its silver linings. Literally, of course, but also figuratively. The forecast must have scared some people away because on the morning of our departure we managed to change our reservation. We dropped a zero from the site number and ended up at site 24 on Spider Lake cutting our paddle time in half and eliminating most portages, except for the first one from Three Legged Lake at the beginning, which is never a bad thing. So even if we got stranded somewhere waiting for a thunderstorm to pass, we had more wiggle room and could still come back on Monday at a reasonable time.

We left Toronto on a Saturday morning, and our drive up north was a breeze. Either most people left the night before or the weather forecast kept some people at home. We stopped at the Swift Canoe and Kayak Outdoor Centre in Waubaushene just north of Midland to get our canoe, then made another stop at Oastler Lake Provincial Park to register and by 1 p.m. were at the Three Legged Lake access point.

driving to the Massasauga provincial park

On the road: our drive to the park was quick and uneventful

It was overcast but not too cold, most importantly not rainy, and even more importantly – not windy. Three Legged Lake is dotted with cottages, which often means motorboats zooming by, but on that Saturday afternoon the lake was pretty quiet.

packed canoe at the Three Legged Lake access point

All set to go: hey, wait for me!

The portage between Three Legged and Spider lakes is less than 400 meters long and fairly level so we managed to do it in a single carry and in less than half an hour were back on the water. After that, it was uninterrupted paddling ahead.

approaching portage between Spider Lake and Three Legged Lake

Our only portage of the trip between Three Legged and Spider Lakes was short and easy

Spider Lake is well deserving of its name. With its numerous legs, it’s like a navigation maze where one wrong turn can take you down some dead end tributary. So a map is a must unless you want to spend hours searching for your site. (A map is actually a must on any trip.) It’s a good thing you can book a specific site at The Massasauga rather than a site on the lake. Finding an available site on a body of water as large and confusing as Spider Lake would probably take hours.

paddling Spider lake in The Massasauga Provincial Park

Navigating Spider Lake’s numerous “legs” is a fun challenge

Our paddle that afternoon was pretty uneventful. We stopped to say ‘hi’ to friends who were staying a few turns and twists away and had lunch with them. About three hours after dipping our paddles in the water, we were at our site where we received a warm reception from black flies. They looked like a friendly bunch and seemed to be genuinely happy to see us. Why else would they keep following us around as we tried to set camp if not to make us feel welcome? Overall, though, the bugs weren’t too bad. Mosquitoes weren’t even out yet and black flies were fairly contained. Once the rain started on day 2, they disappeared altogether. As we were paddling back I even proclaimed that for the first time ever I didn’t get any bites, which was a bit premature because I discovered two – one on each ankle – when we got home. Still, two is nowhere near the blood fest that usually happens around this time of year.

view from site 24 on Spider Lake in The Massasauga

View from our site: the dots are black flies, they really wanted to get into the picture

Our site was a beauty. It was multilevel with lots of room and great views all around. There were two fire pits: one on a rock ledge by the water, another one deeper in the woods. The need for the second one became apparent on our last day when the wind picked up and staying by the water was not an option. We nicknamed them a summer kitchen and a winter kitchen (my grandparents used to have those: one was a separate building used during warmer months, the other one was at the back of the main house for when it got colder).

site 24 on Spider Lake in The Massasauga

Site 24 on Spider Lake: Can you spot our tent up above?

view from site 24 on Spider lake in the Massasauga

One of the two fire pits on the site with a beautiful view of the lake

view from site 24 on Spider Lake in the Massasauga

view from site 24 on Spider Lake in The Massasauga

Now that’s bliss

enjoying the campfire at site 24 in The Massasauga

warming up by the campfire on site 24 at The Massasauga

The only downside to the site, if I can even call it that, was that it required a lot of up and down walking to get from the fire pit to the tent to the thunder box. Also, there was a small issue of finding a flat spot for our tent. We managed to squeeze in our 3-person El Capitan but there were some roots, mostly in the leg area so they didn’t really bother us. We then found a better spot deeper in the woods but decided not to move.

packing a tent on site 24 at The Massasauga

The site didn’t have a lot of flat tent pads, but we managed to find one for our 3-person El Capitan

By the time we finished the set-up, it was time for dinner. For the first time ever we brought dehydrated food pouches from Backpacker’s Pantry. We bought them for our Easter weekend backcountry trip, which we then had to cancel because of a lingering winter/flooding situation. We tried Pad Thai on day one and then had Kathmandu Style Curry the second night. Both were delicious and so easy to make. Which was a big plus, especially after our stove started spewing fire out of every opening. Good thing we had our Pocket Rocket stove as a backup. But we only brought a tiny gas canister for it so the fact that our meals required nothing but boiled water helped us get through the weekend.

Pad Thai from Backpacker's Pantry for dinner during a backcountry trip at The Massasauga

The meals from Backpacker’s Pantry were delicious

Kathmandu style curry from Packpacker's Pantry near the campfire

And so easy to make

In terms of weather, it was a mixed bag. The thunderstorm never materialized. Luckily. But it rained quite a bit: all through the first night, the latter part of day two and then into the second night. It stopped by the time we were ready to go back but then the wind picked up so the paddle back was a bit choppy and chilly. We couldn’t complain, though, because at least we were dry. The rain started again the moment we got into the car so the timing was perfect.

warming up by the campfire at The Massasauga

It’s raining here, it’s raining there, it’s raining, raining everywhere

paddling at The Massasauga

The weather ranged from almost summer-like to…

paddling at The Massasauga

…the late autumn cool

Even with this less than ideal weather, there were lots of magical moments. The perfect stillness of the lake on the first night when the water mirrored the mounds in the sky. The chorus of spring peepers at night with loons leading the solo. Sun kisses infused with almost summer-like vigour. Rain drops piercing the surface of the lake. Gauzy mist drifting across the water, at times blocking the entire world from view. Trilliums timidly raising their heads.

0vercast evening on Spider Lake in The Massasauga

cormorans on the lake

loons on the lake

beaver swimming in the lake at The Massasauga

paddling at The Massasauga

paddling on Spider lake at The Massasauga

rain on Spider Lake at The Massasauga

fog on Spider Lake at The Massasauga

fog on Spider Lake at The Massasauga






Most importantly, it was our first paddle after a long winter and no amount of rain could put a dent in our mood. Plus, as the sign at the Swift Outdoor Centre reminded us: A rainy day paddling is better than a sunny day in the office.

Time to head home

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